Former Oligarch Pens Prison Sketches
“Prison is a place where one can meet the most extraordinary people,” according to Russian tycoon and billionaire jailbird Mikhail Khodorkovsky. According to an Agence France Presse report published in The Australian, Khodorkovsky’s observation was made in the first of a series of chronicles of prison life he’s begun writing for Novoye Vremya, or New Times, magazine.
His column, called ‘Prison Folk’, will be about the inmates of a prison in the far-northern Russian republic of Karelia where Khodorkovsky, formerly one of the richest men in the world, has been incarcerated since the middle of the year. The first instalment is about a prisoner called Kolya, “who disembowelled himself and threw his intestines at guards for being set up for a crime he did not commit: grabbing a purse from an elderly woman.”
Khodorkovsky, whose life story seems lifted from a Russian fable, is in the middle of serving an eight year term for tax evasion. His oil company Yukos was the subject of litigation, and subsequent takeover, by the Russian government in 2003 in an action designed to signal the end of Russian gangster capitalism.
Russian history has been marked by viciously punitive prison regimes. Because writers have often been the target of official opprobrium, Russian literature has chronicled these regimes in detail. Varlam Shalamov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are the best-known chroniclers of the Russian prison system during the Soviet era.
The scale of the Russian penal system has led to the rise of a kind of ‘prison anthropology’, looking into the complex social systems that have evolved over time. Danzig Baldayev, a prison guard at St Petersburg’s notorious Kresty Prison for 33 years, documented this culture in the three-volume Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos (here’s a preview via the book-design blog Brain Pickings).